In September 1997, Martha started preschool and the world changed. It changed in a way that was at first subtle but whose profundity would become clear over the years, like a crack that eventually becomes a chasm.
Martha at five, in 1999, at Community Nursery School
Martha attended Dobbs Ferry Lutheran Christian Pre-School only for two-and-a-half hours three days a week. The preschool was a thirteen-minute walk from our house; we pushed her there in her stroller or drove her if we were lazy. But up until then every day of her life had been spent at home with us. Now part of each day for several days a week she was out of our sight, and she had to fend for herself among other people her age. This was a permanent change, the start of years of formal education that Martha would turn out never to finish. There was no going back, and the effects on her would only become more dramatic.
Martha took it well at first. When we left her with her teacher in the arts and crafts room the first day, she didn’t cry, didn’t even look sad or scared—a little uncertain, but also curious. We were the ones who were sad. We hid it from her until we left, then Melinda cried and I felt like crying. When we picked Martha up, she sat huddled in a hall with the other children, just one of the kids, clutching an artwork she’d made, a paper plate lamb on a stick. I hugged her closer than I had ever hugged her. Oh, Martha, I thought. This is just the beginning of my losing you.
It was a tough time for me generally. That fall I turned thirty-seven, Rick Blaine’s age in Casablanca, which increased the worries I had had for some time that I hadn’t accomplished enough in my life. By that age, Rick Blaine had saved resistance leader Victor Laszlo from the Nazis; I couldn’t even sell a novel. After a series of attempts to find a major publisher for Stranger Still, my agent had given up. I started revising it, determined to improve it and try to sell it on my own to small literary presses, but I had little time because of the constant press of reference book and other nonfiction writing, which never brought in enough money but always kept me burdened with work. As signs that I was entering middle age, the gray in my hair was dense now, not scattered, and my barber confirmed to me that I was getting a bald spot. I had put on so much weight since my wedding ten years earlier that the wedding ring I had worn all that time was stuck and pinching me. The jeweler had to cut the ring off and widen it before returning it to me with exhortations that I take it off every night so as not to get trapped in it again.
Being with Martha helped me take my mind off my fears of aging and never achieving literary fame. She was young and had such a pure view of things. Often at night we looked together at the stars over our front yard, using binoculars or just our eyes. Martha said the stars at the top of the sky were wonder stars. They were.
Martha didn’t make many friends at her preschool, but she increased her connections with stuffed animals at home. They were forming a group that would eventually grow to sixty-four and be called the bed characters (though not all slept in her bed; some slept on her bookshelves). Happy Dog was the leader, though Martha soon renamed her Mary Ann Bea, then Kassie Ann Bea, at which point she married her to a doll of ours, Baby White, making her Kassie Ann White. Also in the bed was the dog Blue from the TV series Blue’s Clues. At one point Martha decided that Kassie Ann and Blue were twin golden retrievers with the last name Clues, and that Kassie Ann’s hyphenated name in marriage was therefore Kassie Ann Clues-White. Melinda ordered from QVC two dolls with nubby fabrics, a green cat and a yellow dog; they too landed in Martha’s bed, named Green Nubby and Yellow Nubby.
Martha had an elaborate bedtime ritual, which evolved over time but was usually split between a “part” for Mommy and a “part” for Daddy, and which interspersed the necessary chores—putting on pajamas, washing her face, brushing, flossing—with reading, singing, playing, and prayers. It could last up to two and a half hours, from 10:00 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. During one of these rituals, I sat on the office carpet with Martha, reading her a favorite picture book, when she suddenly began reading it to me. I was amazed. In her pajamas, she ran away across the carpet (part of the ritual at that time), then ran back and read me some more. She had learned to read!
Just to be sure she wasn’t reciting the book from memory, I decided to test her. During the ritual on December 19, 1997, I handed her a book I knew she had never read, Say Good Night by Harriet . Martha read it aloud almost entirely by herself, with just a little assist from me. The book was earmarked for readers age four to seven, and Martha was only three. I was exceptionally proud of her, but tried not to brag unless an opportunity arose.
With her bright mind went a good heart. She had selected two stuffed animals to be Happy Dog’s parents—Snoopy (the mommy) and Moby Peach (the daddy). One night she decided Happy Dog would be happier with her parents, so she had us move Happy Dog out of her bed and into the armchair where the other animals lived. For one night she slept without Happy Dog, her companion since infancy. The move didn’t last long, but it showed a kind spirit.
She displayed the same kind heart watching Dumbo on TV on Thanksgiving 1997, when she cried at seeing Dumbo separated from his caged mother, and his mother sticking out her trunk through the bars to cradle Dumbo. I offered to turn the movie off, but she said, “No, I want to see how it works out.” It worked out happily, of course, and I was happy to see how much empathy Martha could show for somebody else, even a cartoon elephant.
She watched other movies, usually in installments on home video. Movies in theaters were usually too long—we took her to see Titanic when it came out, and though it would later become a favorite, on her first viewing we had to remove her from the theater at spots when she got bored, such as right after the ship sank. If she liked a movie on home video, she watched it over and over. Some of her favorites were animated movies for children, like Charlotte’s Web, Beauty and the Beast, and A Bug’s Life, but some were grown-up movies, like West Side Story, Superman II, and the James Bond thriller Goldfinger. When I told a classmate’s mom that Martha was watching Goldfinger, she asked disapprovingly, “Is that age-appropriate?” But I thought any movie Martha liked was appropriate for Martha. Watching Goldfinger together, I was able to teach her about plot structure, like the pleasurably repeating climaxes of the movie’s five endings—fighting , stopping the atomic bomb, fighting Goldfinger, fighting the plane’s dive, and finally relaxing with Pussy Galore on the island.
Martha played her own game of Goldfinger with toys that she had lately employed to reenact other movies. In addition, new toys were always joining Martha’s party. For Christmas 1997, she got a playset she would cherish until the end of her life—Melanie’s Mall, a dreamland of a shopping mall with an escalator, elevator, food court, skating rink, and lots of stores, populated by blonde Melanie dolls and their friends. Throughout Martha’s life, Melanie’s Mall filled the brick floor in front of the fireplace. There Melanie played the roles of Pussy Galore, Lois Lane, and Belle, perennially being put in jeopardy by other toys playing Goldfinger, Lex Luthor, and Gaston, only to be rescued by a blond boyfriend of Melanie’s playing James Bond, Superman, and the Prince/Beast.
Some of Martha’s toys were electronic. In 1997, we acquired our first computer with internet access and a CD-ROM drive, and Martha learned to play video games. Her favorite was Ready to Read with Pooh, in which Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, and her other beloved Pooh characters helped her learn to read; she kept playing it even after she had learned. At Christmas of that year, while Martha got Melanie’s Mall, my wife gave me Tomb Raider, which I liked for its adventurous, busty, leggy heroine Lara Croft. Martha didn’t play it often, but she liked watching me play, and played her own home game, shooting bats and wolves and climbing and swimming throughout the house.
Martha was generally a healthy child, but while she was in preschool her pediatrician informed us that he thought her speech was impaired. He said she was lisping; her s had a faint sh sound. We were so committed to the idea that our daughter was perfect that we took this as an insult. We took Martha for speech therapy, but we also found other speech specialists who said she had no speech impairment. So eventually we overruled the pediatrician and stopped the speech therapy.
After Martha died, I watched a video of her valedictory address at her high school graduation, and I thought I detected a remnant of the faint lisp her pediatrician noticed. It’s possible he was right, and we were just in denial. By that time, it was clear we had been in denial about much more serious things that we thought might mar the sheen of Martha’s perfection.
Martha liked her preschool, as I could see when I sat in as a volunteer den daddy once in a while. She sang in a Christmas pageant there, the first in a long line of theatrical productions she would enjoy. The school was inexpensive and she got some basic Christian education. But we had never been entirely satisfied with the school for the most base of reasons—class. It seemed too low for her. She attended school with the son of our exterminator and the daughter of a cleaning woman. The fathers at parent-teacher night had mustaches and the mothers had big hair. Even the Christian angle seemed blue-collar.
Dobbs Ferry itself was sort of blue-collar compared to the other , the other villages that surrounded it on the Hudson River—Irvington, Hastings, Ardsley. Those towns had higher median incomes and classier reputations. People often called Dobbs Ferry unpretentious, and called us that too, when what that meant was that we had less claim to pretension.
We learned there was another preschool in Dobbs Ferry, Community Nursery School, that attracted children who came from all over the and whose parents were more likely to be lawyers, ad executives, artists, and other strivers. It was secular, more expensive, and had more toys, including a real speedboat that had been mounted in the playground. Martha finished up her year at the Lutheran preschool and started the next fall at Community Nursery School.
After a couple of months, Martha’s teacher had a talk with us. She acknowledged Martha’s high intelligence, including her reading ability—which greatly impressed and disturbed other moms whose children were still illiterate. But Martha was lacking in social skills. Martha often played by herself at recess, and had no real friends. We had asked Martha about her classmates, and Martha had told us she was friends with a girl named Julia. But the teacher said they weren’t friends; Julia was just a popular girl whom Martha wished were her friend.
The teacher told us we could remedy Martha’s social ineptitude by arranging playdates with other children. We did, two or three a week, including with Julia. Martha was awkward, but she started making friends. Her closest friend was a girl named Sadie who lived in a red house with siblings, dogs, ferrets, hedgehogs, and other creatures. We hoped that this would be the last we would hear about Martha’s trouble making friends, but it wasn’t. The problem would persist all her life.
At home, Martha seemed to have no problems. She kept playing with her toys, including a new Robin Hood playset my parents gave her for Christmas 1998. She loved mixing the Robin Hood characters with her Pooh friends, the , her Barbies, and other toys in a big world of romance and action-adventure.
Martha asked me about all kinds of things and I happily answered—the Trojan War, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, the dresses men wear in Nigeria, how germs and antibiotics work. She liked looking at movie ads, though not going to movies, which for her were still too long to watch at one sitting. I got interested in philosophy around this time, and she liked talking with me about a paper I had read by Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”
Philosophically, one of the things that most puzzled her was meanness. She saw it in movies—the mean girl Amber in Hairspray; the cruel Egyptian prince Rameses in The Ten Commandments—but she couldn’t understand it. Why would somebody want to be better than another person, or want to get back at another person for an injury? I had to explain these things to her—cruelty, vengeance, pride—because she was naturally kind, forgiving, and humble. She didn’t know how to be otherwise, had no feelings going the other way.
She learned to say the sign of the cross, to do the sign of peace at Mass—shaking hands with people nearby. She learned to pray for her grandparents and for a young friend of ours, Alexia, who died of breast cancer around New Year’s Day 1999. “Please take care of Alexia and make sure she comes to visit you on Monday,” Martha told God. “If not Monday, then Tuesday.” By March 1999, Martha and I were reading her children’s Bible together, learning about Adam and Eve, and deciding that the crucial question was why did Adam and Eve believe the snake? The snake had never given them anything good, whereas God had given them only good things.
By her second year of preschool, Martha started to have an idea of what she wanted to be when she grew up. She wanted to be a mommy, a writer, a good cook, and a gardener. Her mother was all those things; of the four, I was only a writer. She spent a lot of time with her mother at that age learning how to be female, which she was also discovering by such means as watching Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. At Sadie’s birthday party in the fall, each girl received a golden plastic tiara, and Martha wore hers every day for months, along with a necklace, bracelet, and ring. She was dedicated to being a girl. But she loved to play with me because of all the games and adventures I came up with.
Martha had always been well-behaved in restaurants, and we liked going out as a family to eat. For a while, we went once a week, but as money became tighter we started going only once a month, every second Sunday. The rest of the time, Melinda made almost all the dinners, because I was not a good cook and, in addition, was lazy. Martha grew up on a varied menu of Melinda’s delicious meals—steak, chicken, chili, shrimp stir-fry, and Martha’s favorite, spaghetti and meatballs.
When we did eat out, we took turns choosing the restaurant. Melinda and I usually chose by price, picking the inexpensive Dobbs Diner or Golden Wok II, but Martha was extravagant, choosing solely by preference without regard to price. She picked the Thai restaurant in Ardsley, with its fanciful Buddhist decorations and live fish; Scaramella’s, an expensive Italian place with a peach sorbet she liked; and Royal Palace, an Indian restaurant where, we liked to say, they made you feel like a king, queen, princess, or prince.
While in preschool, Martha started seeing and enjoying plays, beginning with a regional theater production of Winnie the Pooh in White Plains. On June 12, 1999, Martha saw her first Broadway play, a revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
By then, Martha had turned five, and her fifth birthday party was her first one with lots of children. Always before we had had little birthday parties for her in which the guests were mostly adult friends of ours. But now that Martha had some friends her own age, we invited them and all her other classmates from Community Nursery School. Mostly the kids played outside in our backyard, swinging on the swings and running around. We had good weather that day and for all her subsequent birthday parties.
In the summer, after Martha graduated from preschool, we paid our yearly visit to my parents in Florida, and this time we took a side-trip to take Martha on her first excursion to Disney World. Disney World is a sprawling place that we explored widely in annual visits over the next few years, but that year we stuck to the Magic Kingdom. Martha loved hugging Mickey Mouse and the other Disney characters strolling mutely around. She liked the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and the Mad Tea Party Teacup Ride, but her favorite ride was It’s a Small World after All. She went on it several times, riding with us in the boat, waving at the dancing dolls who were waving to us.
Throughout her preschool years, Martha liked telling us how much she loved us. We, of course, ate this up. “I’m sitting on your lap because I love you,” she told me. “I love you more than I can count,” she said another time. Often, she said, “I love you, Daddy. I love you so.”
One day Martha said to me, “Daddy, I wish you could be with me always.”
“Oh, I wish I could be with you always too,” I answered. “And I will be with you for your whole childhood.”
“But after I grow up?”
“Then I won’t be with you all the time, but I’ll be with you whenever you like.”
“But I’m enjoying my childhood,” she said.
I gave her a big hug and kiss. “Oh, Martha, I’m enjoying it too.” She was the sweetest girl in all the world. And I was so happy to hear she was enjoying her childhood. Despite her trouble socializing, Martha felt joy then. Knowing what life would be like for her in her last years, I take solace in that.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.